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Collecting Social Security Disability for a Mental Illness

Although disability is available for both physical and mental conditions, it is generally more difficult to collect for a mental illness. Often, an applicant will be forced to go through the appeals process before he or she can begin to collect social security disability. This can be a long and difficult process.

The first step in obtaining social security disability is to meet with a disability examiner. This is often a difficult hurdle for many applicants with mental illnesses. In general, the conditions associated with a mental illness are internal and difficult to assess, which makes it hard for a disability examiner to objectively determine the severity of the condition. Therefore, the examiner is limited to the official social security list of impairments, known as the "blue book".

The disability examiner will refer to the blue book to determine whether an applicant's symptoms exist within any of the listed mental conditions. These are conditions that social security will recognize as inherently disabling. If the symptoms do not qualify for any of the blue book conditions, social security disability will be denied. There is one exception: if an applicant has been diagnosed with a mental condition that prevents him or her from working, and if it can be demonstrated that the condition is severe and is likely to last for at least one year, the applicant can collect disability whether or not the specific condition is in the blue book.

If an applicant is denied, he or she may appeal the denial. The first appeal is made to the state disability determination services (DDS). Chances of success at this level are not good: DDS denies approximately 85 percent of all disability appeals.

However, the second appeal is made to a federal administrative law judge, and is much more likely to be favorable. During the appeal, the judge will hear from the applicant and may also hear from his or her attorney or doctor, and often awards benefits based on that testimony.

Regardless of the specific process, it is proven that having a competent attorney on your side is beneficial. Studies show that having a qualified disability attorney represent an applicant at a hearing can increase the chances of winning by 50 percent.

Source: SSD Disability, "Mental Illness and Social Security Disability"

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